January 29, 2008
Bill Clinton’s recent hard-edged intervention in the Democratic leadership race reminded me of his aggressive response about his anti-terror record in a media interview with Chris Wallace. I included it as an example of one way to challenge the premise of the reporter’s gotcha questions in a column I wrote for PR Canada in September 2006. It starts with the Diane Sawyer interview with American Idol’s Clay Aiken asking about his sexuality. Here it is again for those who are interested in managing difficult questions in media interviews:
It used to be that the “gotcha” question was “When did you stop beating your wife?” Now that the “Did you ever take drugs?” question has worn out, the “gotcha” question is: “Are you Gay?” So, what do you do if the media ask a “gotcha” question?
Let’s look at the options:
- Negotiate a clear focus for the interaction ahead of the interview.
- Warn the interviewer off certain subjects.
- Answer the question directly, perhaps yes or no.
- Provide a variation that confirms or denies, perhaps with lots of ambiguity so that the receiver won’t be sure of the answer: “I won’t tell you what I am but I don’t have any problem that people have different sexual preferences.”
- Challenge the ‘Premise’ on the basis of the appropriateness of the question, the facts/interpretation of the facts/conclusion drawn off the facts. Saying in some way that the question is inappropriate is a premise challenge tactic. (Below you will see this done by former President Bill Clinton.) Refocusing on/bridging to the main/agreed focus of the interview is a premise challenge of the appropriateness of the question.
- Exit. If the techniques of not answering the question directly do not convince the reporter to move on and have been well delivered, then get out.
In any given situation, you might well see a combination of options employed. There is no right or wrong response, just options, each with its own upside and downside. For instance, warning the interviewer off a certain subject – such as the gay question – might have an upside of eliminating that question, but it might have the downside of signalling a sensitivity that the reporter has a difficult time ignoring. The reporter may be prepared to break an agreement in order to increase the conflict/news value of the interview. Let’s look at some real world applications.
The New York Post carried a headline: “Clay Aiken Calls Diane Sawyer’s Gay Question ‘Rude’.” It refers to an interview on “Good Morning America” between the veteran broadcast journalist and the 2003 runner-up who became an instant star after his performances on “American Idol.”
The Post reported the exchange this way:
Sawyer went right after Aiken, asking at the top of the interview if he was “ready to come out and say you’re gay.”
“That would not make sense for me to do that,” Aiken said.
“You think I’m rude for asking?” Sawyer asked Aiken.
“I’ve gotten to a point where I feel it’s invasive. Forget it. What I do in my private life is nobody’s business anymore, period. I don’t think you’re rude because I figure people have a job to do.” Aiken said.
“I just don’t understand why people care, to be honest with you. I’m not spending my time with this anymore. This is a waste of my time.”
So, Aiken didn’t answer the question, he challenged the premise. He also signalled that he was done. He waved his arms and his body language signalled he’s going to leave, but he didn’t. Finally he said: “So, I’m done.” And then Sawyer changed the discussion to the issue of intrusive questions into private lives and admitted, “You got me”. She doesn’t like it either.
Some have criticized Sawyer for lack of journalistic vigour for not pressing Aiken, presumably until he broke and supported her initial conclusion. I’m not interested in the content, only in the technique. In this exchange, Aiken premise challenged his way through the interview. He could have also used the premise challenge that we’ll see in the next example: Do you ask this question of everyone you interview? (This shifts control to the interviewee.)
Another example. Chris Wallace interviewed Former President of the United States Bill Clinton on Fox News Sunday with an agreed focus of the Clinton Global Initiative. Wallace didn’t start with the question: “Tell me about the Clinton Global Initiative.” Instead, Wallace put Clinton on the defensive straight off:
Wallace: In a recent issue of The New Yorker you say, quote, I’m 60 years old and I damn near died, and I’m worried about how many lives I can save before I do die. Is that what drives you in your effort to help in these developing countries?
Clinton: Yes, I really – but I don’t mean – that sounds sort of morbid when you say it like that. I mean, I actually…
Wallace: That’s how you said it.
Clinton: Yes, but the way I said it, the tone in which I said it was actually whimsical and humorous. That is, this is what I love to do. It is what I think I should do.
A few questions later Wallace really lights up Clinton.
Wallace: When we announced that you were going to be on Fox News Sunday, I got a lot of e-mail from viewers. And I’ve got to say, I was surprised. Most of them wanted me to ask you this question: Why didn’t you do more to put bin Laden and Al-Qaeda out of business when you were president?
The two of them engage in a choppy exchange with Clinton trying to get control and Wallace raising more questions that attack Clinton’s record. Finally Clinton gets aggressive.
Clinton: OK, let’s talk about it. Now, I will answer all those things on the merits, but first I want to talk about the context in which this arises.
Clinton and Wallace get into it with Clinton using a combination of answers to criticisms and premise challenges to Wallace on his motives. Here are the best bits strung together.
Clinton: So you did Fox’s bidding on this show. You did your nice little conservative hit job on me. What I want to know is…
Wallace: I want to ask a question. You don’t think that’s a legitimate question?
(Control has shifted to Clinton. It’s his agenda that now drives the interview. Wallace is responding to Clinton’s attack.)
Clinton: It was a perfectly legitimate question, but I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you asked this question of.
Wallace: We ask plenty of questions of…
Clinton: You didn’t ask that, did you? Tell the truth, Chris.
Clinton: ….And you came here under false pretences and said….
Wallace: …I didn’t think this would send you off on such a tear.
Clinton: You launched it – you set me off on a tear because you didn’t formulate it in an honest way and because you people ask me questions you don’t ask the other side.
Wallace: That’s not true. Sir, that is not true.
Wallace: Would you like to talk about the Clinton Global Initiative?
Clinton: No, I want to finish this now.
(Watch both parts on You Tube, links at the end.)
So, who won? Wallace. He got one of the best interviews a reporter could ever get. Clinton got to talk about his global initiative but it was lost in the political discussion that was present throughout. Clinton took the hook, fought valiantly and used premise challenge explicitly throughout, but Wallace got a great interview at the cost of having his nose figuratively but seriously bloodied by Clinton’s counterpunching premise challenges.
One final, quick example. Bill Parcells was the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League. His very controversial star receiver Terrell Owens, was reported to have tried to commit suicide with an overdose of medication. Parcells was holding his daily press conference following practice and knew next to nothing about the details of the situation. The Associated Press reported on the result.
“After getting almost strictly Owens-related questions, coach Bill Parcells cut off his usual 25-30 minute session after only nine-minutes. He ended it by getting up from his chair and saying, ‘When I find out what the hell is going on, you will know. Until then, I’m not getting interrogated for no reason.’”
Parcells picked up his water bottle and walked out. And yes, some media outlets carried that act on their sports news. So what? Parcells had provided reasonable responses to the questions – but he could not answer their questions precisely because he didn’t have the information. His exit was reasonable. No damage for walking out. If he had speculated and given them a controversial quote, they would have enjoyed the “gotcha” but also would have been wondering why he stayed in a vulnerable position.
As Diane Sawyer admitted in her interview, the reporters know what’s in the best interests of the interviewee. The interviewees need to know it too.